When summer break ends in a few weeks, a sprinkling of Colby faculty members won’t be returning to Mayflower Hill. Four professors have ended their decades of distinction as Colby scholars and teachers and are easing into retirement.
Effective August 30, Michael Burke (English and creative writing), Jill Gordon (philosophy), Garry Mitchell (art), and Betty Sasaki (Spanish) will retire and become professor emeritus.
Even as retirement beckons, there’s a tinge of sadness leaving a career so rich with rewarding relationships.
“I always loved going to work, seeing my colleagues, seeing my students,” said Sasaki, reflecting on her 32-year career at Colby. “We enjoyed each other, and I felt very lucky to know them.”
Burke found enjoyment in the reciprocity of working with students in creative writing workshops. “What could be better,” he often mused, “than to get paid to go into a room and talk about what you’re interested in with smart students who are also interested in the same thing?” He found it remarkable, something to not only value but to be grateful for.
Having witnessed tremendous growth in their individual departments and campus wide, these individuals leave a legacy with the students whose lives they’ve touched in immeasurable ways and with their colleagues whom they’ve inspired and mentored.
Michael Burke, professor of English and creative writing, has taught courses on creative nonfiction, environmental literature, and nature writing at Colby since 1987. Burke is quick to point out that he was hired by the late Charlie Bassett, the legendary professor of English and American studies whose office Burke occupied until moving out in July. “It was sort of a nice circular thing,” he said.
Burke was director of the Creative Writing Program for the last five years and launched two significant initiatives: the Jennifer Jahrling Forese Writer-in-Residence Program in Creative Writing, which brings a significant American writer to campus for a semester to teach a course and engage with students, and the Maine Lit Festival, in conjunction with the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance.
Earlier in his Colby career, he was a force in establishing the first-year writing program, which introduced writing requirements, reduced the student-teacher ratio in writing courses, and eventually established the Writing Department. The program was a “dramatic change” in life at the College for both students and faculty, he said, and is now working “fantastically well” as a shared responsibility across the College.
Beyond campus, he served as director of the Colby in London Program in 2001, and in 2005 he was director of the Colby-Bates-Bowdoin Program in Cape Town, South Africa.
He’s proud of all these accomplishments, but what he’ll miss most is teaching. “I’ll definitely miss the students,” he said. “Being in the classroom with them, you know, I just enjoyed that so much.”
While cleaning out his files, he looked through a stack of student essays from 2006 that he’d kept. He was struck by how good they were. “They’re just brilliant. And this was the first week of class—I hadn’t taught them anything yet!” he said. “It just reminded me of what a gift it was to be able to work with students like that.”
Burke’s nonfiction has been published in the New York Times, Boston Globe, and Sunday Times (South Africa) and in Down East, Outside, and Yankee magazines. His memoir, The Same River Twice: A Boatman’s Journey Home, recounts his long experience as a whitewater river guide and chronicles journeys taken down remote rivers in northern British Columbia. In 2018 the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance presented him with its Maine Literary Award in Drama for his play The Town Meets. He earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
A month before his last class this spring, Burke turned 70, “a pretty good number,” he said. Life at the College will go on without him, but he hopes nothing will interfere with what he sees as essential, “a professor in a room with students, going back and forth about ideas.”
Lauren Cohen Fisher ’13, Colby’s director of Jewish student life and lecturer in the Jewish Studies Department, said Burke was one of the only professors who stayed in touch with her a decade after she graduated, continuing to encourage her writing and learning.
“As his student, he taught me about how to understand the world, how to tell its stories, and how to find empathy for even the most unlikely characters (real and fictional),” Cohen Fisher said. “He’s the type of professor any student would be lucky to have, and he is one of the reasons I wanted to become a professor and return to Colby.”
Jill Gordon, the NEH/Class of 1940 Distinguished Professor in the Humanities and professor of philosophy, specializes in Ancient Greek philosophy and in social and political philosophy, including the philosophy of race and feminist philosophy. When she came to Colby in 1991 after earning her doctorate in philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin, she was one of the first female tenure-track hires in the Philosophy Department. She blazed a trail for those who followed, championing the presence of women in the discipline and department.
She has produced an abundance of scholarly work during her 32 years at the College. She has authored two books analyzing works by Plato, Plato’s Erotic World: From Cosmic Origin to Human Death (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and Turning Toward Philosophy: Literary Device and Dramatic Structure in Plato’s Dialogues (Penn State Press, 1999), and she is currently working on a third, Sex Difference and the Platonic World Order: A Reading of the Timaeus. She is also the editor of the collected volume Hearing, Sound, and the Auditory in Ancient Greece (Indiana University Press, 2022). She has contributed to seven other collected volumes; published numerous articles in academic journals; written invited book reviews; served as an external referee and manuscript reviewer; and delivered dozens of academic lectures and conference presentations.
Gordon cofounded Colby’s Simone de Beauvoir Society to encourage women in philosophy on campus. Named after the 20th-century French existentialist philosopher and feminist activist, the society meets regularly to build solidarity and a space for dialogue. “Jill was always so dedicated to mentoring all her students but was especially passionate about empowering our female students,” said Lydia Moland, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Philosophy, who cofounded the society with Gordon.
“Jill brings deep integrity, wisdom, and excellence to everything she does,” Moland continued. “She was the best mentor I could have imagined when I started at Colby: encouraging, loyal, resourceful, and savvy. She is passionate always about fighting for justice in and out of the classroom and is a model of holding herself and others to high standards that produce genuine philosophical thinking.”
Professionally, Gordon was a founding member and co-director of the Ancient Philosophy Society and was active with the American Philosophical Association, serving on its Committee on the Status for Women in the Profession and as director of its Site Visit Program. She is also most proud of being cofounder and first co-director of the Ancient Philosophy Society, now in its 23rd year of existence.
In 2010 Colby’s Alumni Council awarded her its Charles W. Bassett Faculty Award, and the C Club bestowed her with its Person of the Year Award as faculty liaison to Colby’s football team.
Rebecca Short Weston ’08 said that “perhaps the way to best describe Professor Jill Gordon’s influence on me is to say that, 15 years after graduating from Colby, amidst the busy activities of being a book editor, wife, and mother, I am still reading Plato. As a teacher, Professor Gordon was generous with her time and energy, vastly knowledgeable, patient, and had a nearly superhuman clarity of thought.
“Her ability to inspire her students to live inside the exciting world of ideas for the sake of those ideas themselves has made me a better person in the world outside of them. For all of these gifts that Professor Gordon shared with us, I am forever grateful.”
Garry Mitchell, associate professor of art, is an abstract painter with a unique approach to color and abstraction. He has exhibited his paintings and monotypes nationally and internationally, including in New York, Boston, Tokyo, and in galleries across Maine. Since joining the faculty in 1996, he has taught studio art, and his introductory studio courses were always overenrolled, often by as much as three times the maximum capacity.
Over the decades, Mitchell developed a vibrant studio practice of his own. His teaching was supported by his deep commitment to that practice, said Daniel Harkett, associate professor of art. “In a studio in the Maine countryside, in view of his stunningly vibrant flower garden, Garry makes abstract paintings that set shape and color in subtly shifting, rhythmic relationships that recall [the Dutch painter Piet] Mondrian. Part of a Modernist tradition of abstraction, Garry has also succeeded—like the very best abstract painters—in developing a painterly language of his own, one that invites viewers to absorb themselves deeply in visual experience and rewards them with pleasures of the highest order.”
Inventive and inspiring, he developed new curricula at Colby, including his course Art of the Monotype and another titled Visual Thinking, which challenged students to imagine and experiment with a wide variety of materials. He also mentored the Art Department’s most advanced students in the capstone course for studio art majors, “who benefited greatly from his sharp eye and enthusiasm,” said another colleague, Tanya Sheehan, the Ellerton M. and Edith K. Jetté Professor of Art.
Since earning his M.F.A. from the Pratt Institute in 1982, Mitchell’s abstract artwork has been shown in numerous group exhibitions, including in biennials at the Portland Museum of Art and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. He’s also had more than two dozen solo exhibitions, including at the Colby Museum of Art. Mitchell has received fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the Edward Albee Foundation, and the Provincetown Fine Arts Workcenter and grants from the Ford Foundation, the Massachusetts Arts Council, the Arizona Arts Commission, and the Maryland Commission on the Arts.
Sam Onche ’22, a Chicago-based illustrator and painter, said that Mitchell “has had a lasting impact on me and my art career since graduating from Colby. I still remember my first class with him and evenings talking about art and critiquing work. Most of all, I remember how kind and amazing of a human being he was and still is. He’s the the kind of person that would go out of his way to make sure you’re supported, comfortable, and inspired in and out of the classroom.”
Betty Sasaki, associate professor of Spanish, is a scholar of early modern Spanish literature and culture with a special interest in poetry. Coming to Colby in 1991 after earning her doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, for many years she taught courses on early modern Spanish cultural texts, focusing on issues of race, gender, and class in 16th- and 17th-century Spain.
In 2000, as a response to growing student interest in institutionally marginalized cultures, she introduced the first course at Colby dedicated specifically to Latinx culture and identity. The positive response to that course (U.S. Latina/Chicana Women Writers), particularly from the increasing number of Latinx students at Colby, led the department to include this area of study as a requirement to fulfill the Spanish major.
As both a teacher and colleague of the Spanish Department, which she chaired for more than a decade, Sasaki prioritized the creation of an intellectual, relational community based on mutual trust, respect, equity, and collaboration. “To be a critical thinker, an engaged citizen, to make meaning and purpose in your life, you cannot do it alone,” she said. “It has to come through relationships.”
As a highlight to her career, Sasaki emphasized both the pleasure and importance of working with colleagues whose commitment to teaching she values and admires. For her, that shared vision as co-creators of community forms the foundation for the larger community of students and colleagues who find meaningful connection with the department.
From 2016 to 2019, she served as Colby’s associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), where she led the efforts to create a strategic plan for DEI based on the recommendations of the Presidential Task Force on DEI, which she co-chaired in 2015. Among the many projects she led were the implementation of Colby’s first climate survey; the expansion of support services for first-generation-to-college students to create the current FLI Program; the Transgender Working Group, which advanced policies relating to housing and gender-neutral bathrooms across campus; and the reorganization of the College’s bias incident prevention and response protocol.
At this moment of leaving, Sasaki reflected on the close relationships she forged with her students. “The richest part of teaching at a liberal arts institution is that my students are smart, engaged, and curious—and open. They would bring richness to our discussions.”
Sasaki’s mantra to her students was that they needed to think about their education as preparation to become a citizen capable of going out into the world and changing it for the common good.
That some of them took her advice to heart “is compelling to me,” she said. “That felt like my imperative.”
According to Kiana Kawamura ’17, Sasaki made classrooms open to learning about both the coursework and one’s own personal values. “She consistently challenged people to think independently and demonstrated her own brilliance by sharing her perspective and how she reached her own conclusions,” said Kawamura, an analytical and materials scientist at Bend Bioscience in Oregon.
“For me, Betty was the key to me pursuing a Spanish major and was a constant support during my time at Colby, through lunches, discussions of current events, and overall supporting my growth as a person. Knowing and learning from Betty Sasaki was one of the most beautiful parts of my time at Colby.”
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